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OUTDOORS: Winter cardinals

OUTDOORS: Winter cardinals

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There are two types of cardinals: the spring, summer and fall cardinals—and they are beautiful—and there are the winter cardinals—and they are spectacular. 

I had four winter cardinals in my yard during the recent snowstorm. Of the dozens of birds at my various feeders, the winter cardinals simply radiated with beauty. The contrast between the cardinal-red feathers and the fresh, white snow was breathtaking. I was mesmerized and watched in admiration for several minutes as the lovely red birds moved gracefully against the backdrop of snow. The female cardinals are lovely as well, but not nearly as stunning as their mates.

Apparently, there is another type of winter cardinal—an albino, but the cardinal in the picture is not an albino because albino birds and animals are entirely void of any pigments. They are entirely white.

The bird in the photo is leucistic, a genetic mutation. Leucism results in partial loss of pigmentation in a bird or animal, like a piebald deer, mostly but not all white. An albino bird, by contrast, would have white everything. The bird pictured is a male, since it has a red feather or two on its crown (the females have all brown feathers on top). The cells responsible for producing melanin pigment didn’t quite do their job.

If such a male mates with an ordinary female the odds are the babies will be normally colored cardinals. Nature is most interesting indeed.

One thing I’ve noticed about the flocks of cardinals we have in our yard in the winter is they usually get along well during winter; but when spring comes, the feathers fly. Cardinals are very territorial. By April, the cardinals have ended their turf wars and exactly two couples will share my yard and feeders. They sort of tolerate each other, but one male will always be dominant over the other. In fall, they disperse, and by early winter they return. Many birds form flocks for protection and I suppose cardinals do the same. They would certainly be an easy target for hawks as they clearly stand out from the others.

Winter cardinals aren’t particular about their food or where they eat it. They will fly up to a feeder, or down on the ground with the sparrows. I really believe they prefer to feed on the ground. Cardinals are especially fond of sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts and safflower seeds—about the only seed a squirrel won’t eat.

All I know is that cardinals are certainly lovely birds, they are a joy to watch and the winter cardinals are the most beautiful of all.

—Contact Jim Brewer at

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